If you’ve traveled internationally, you probably know that the hardest part is often just getting there. There’s the preparation, the documents, the scramble to learn a few key phrases, then the actual travel. But for eight teachers who journeyed to San José el Paraíso this past March, the toughest part was not getting from Wyoming to the farthest reaches of Nicaragua. It was coming back a week later and leaving all the families who captured their hearts.
“Coming back was the hardest,” according to Rachel Howerton, a first-year elementary school art teacher from Sheridan, Wyoming. “I just remember leaving and thinking, ‘Well I had other plans this summer…but I’m probably going to go back and cancel all that and book a ticket.’ I decided [to return in June] less than a week later.”
Howerton is returning to intern with Project Schoolhouse for a month this summer.
For her and seven other teachers from Sheridan, the idea of volunteering with Project Schoolhouse began with a “Crash Course” last fall at Sheridan College. Howerton attended a one-hour orientation session with the Executive Director, Tab Barker. She was joined by another teacher, Becki Butterfield. Butterfield would take the lead in gathering the teachers’ delegation from Sheridan.
Howerton, who is newer to Sheridan, credited Butterfield and Barker for bringing the group together and making the trip happen. “Becki had a big hand in forming the group, she has a lot of connections. We were worried we wouldn’t have enough volunteers, but…it all worked out.”
In the end Barker recruited a mother-daughter pair with Sheridan roots, bringing the delegation total to ten.
Even though the teachers knew one another and had worked closely prior to the trip, Howerton admits she was impressed by how well the group came together to raise funds and roll with the punches when they reached Nicaragua. They coordinated with two local Sheridan breweries, Blacktooth and Luminous, to host pint nights, raffles, and other fun activities to raise awareness and attract donations.
“Team-building happened naturally with how much fundraising we did, to make sure we didn’t pay out of pocket. We couldn’t have asked for a better crew, everyone pulled their weight,” said Howerton. She added that one of the group’s biggest successes in Nicaragua was “…just getting along. Knowing there are so many strong personalities, we went with the flow, there wasn’t a lot of complaining.”
Even for Howerton, who describes herself as able to fit in most anywhere, this experience with her seven colleagues solidified her sense of feeling part of the team.
What happens in Nicaragua, does not stay in Nicaragua…
So what exactly happened down in San José el Paraíso?
On May 1st, a month after the trip, members of the Sheridan community gathered for another “Crash Course” presentation, this time downtown at Frackelton’s Restaurant. Four of the teachers — Becki Butterfield, Rachel Howerton, Charlie Reid, Jackie Coulter — shared a digital diary of their experience in San José. Each day presented a new adventure and an evening of reflection as they shared “peaks and pits” — highs and lows from the day.
Their highlights included:
• Digging the final stretch of trenching to pipe clean water from the spring to the new school site in San José el Paraíso.
• Helping build and expand a road to get the bulldozer into San José (to level the school site). The bulldozer would arrive miraculously the next day, thanks largely to a young man from the community who ran all night to meet the driver and fend off bulldozer requests from other communities along the way.
• Teaching art classes with the kids and their parents…and watching the young ones when their mothers really got into it.
• Having the students guide them to gather native flowers and plants, which they later smashed and transformed into colorful mosaics on sheets of cloth.
• Eating delicious meals prepared by their Nicaraguan hosts.
• Attending the inauguration of the Project Schoolhouse school recently completed in the neighboring town of San Antonio, complete with dance performances put on by the kids.
• Hikes to visit San José’s spring capture, their new source of clean water, and to swim in the Palan River.
• Playing pick-up baseball with the children—first with shovels and rocks, later with equipment from the local baseball coach. Encouraging the local girls and showing them how to play was another surprise highlight.
Other highlights and successes were less tangible. With a changing schedule and occasional curveballs, surrendering control became a theme for the trip — letting go and operating completely on someone’s else’s time. Nica time. Coupled with the absence of cell phones and electricity, this shifted the focus to personal interaction. Howerton noted, “Just knowing you’re not going to be in that moment with those people again encouraged me to get the most out of it.”
Still, everyone experienced their share of challenge and discomfort. For some it was the physical labor in a hot, humid climate, coupled with the emotional weight of the journey, or the challenge to communicate through pantomime. An hour or two could feel like an entire day’s work. Others felt the need to seek out alone time — perhaps walking home apart from the group or taking a moment to journal and reflect.
For Howerton, one of her favorite challenges was teaching art when Barker left for the afternoon: “There was no translator, just one or two of the [Nicaraguan] girls there to help facilitate. It was a ‘smile won’t leave your face’ moment when you’re actually communicating and seeing the kids succeeding at the art you’re teaching — and loving it.”
Back at Frackelton’s in Sheridan, the four young teachers gush with enthusiasm. They take turns describing slides, smiles aglow, arms gesticulating with excitement. By the time they wrap up the presentation, they are practically speaking in unison. They launch into an unprompted, unrehearsed PSA — urging everyone in the room to go to Nicaragua and travel with Project Schoolhouse.
Before long another teacher in the audience raises her hand and volunteers to lead a group in 2018.
This is how we transform lives — one teacher, one school, one community at a time.
To learn more about traveling with Project Schoolhouse, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.